Interview: Justin Roberts

The one thing I discovered from teaching preschool is you shouldn't have a preconceived notion of what kids will respond to. So I don't try to guess. -- Justin Roberts

With three CD releases in the past six months (the highly acclaimed Meltdown! and two "Why Not Sea Monsters?" scripture-related CDs with collaborator Liam Davis) and a very active 2006 touring schedule, Justin Roberts has been a very busy man as of late. Still, Justin must have exemplary time-management skills as he provided thoughtful responses to the questions below. Read on to find out which characters in Roberts' songs have echoes of Justin himself, who he's trying to please when writing songs, and what rocking out with kids is more fun than.

And thanks again to Justin for the interview.


When did you realize that you were going to make making kids' music your career?
I put out Great Big Sun in 1997 right as I was entering graduate school at the University of Chicago. I had no intention at that time of becoming a kids music performer. However, after finishing my masters in religious studies, I decided rocking out with kids was a lot more fun than studying Sanskrit. I stand by that statement today.

How much of your music is based on memories from your own childhood compared to watching kids as an adult?
I take a lot of inspiration from my own childhood, little memories and events that I use as building blocks. But sometimes I just make it all up. I think when I'm writing a song I try to get into the characters head and tell his or her story. In the same way that I would when writing a song for adults. So, while I might be inspired by the kids in my neighborhood cranking out chalk art, the character in the song develops as the story comes out.

On Meltdown! was "Cartwheels & Somersaults" based on personal experience, or was that a generalized experience?
I wrote that song for my sister (who is nine years younger than me). However, in the song it sounds like it is told from the prospective of an only child who is much closer in age. I still remember how amazing it was the day I came home from school and met my sister. Of course, several days later I was teasing her just like a big brother should.

Were you anything like the impish kid that seems to populate so many of your songs ("My Brother Did It," "Meltdown," "One Little Cookie")?
I was a pretty well behaved kid. If I did anything wrong, it was on the sly. My brother was a little more confrontational. But most of the stuff from the songs is made up. If anything, "My Brother Did It" is a role reversal since I was the younger one getting blamed for everything. I love how kids are sort of amoral but they have a sense of right and wrong at the same time. They are always testing boundaries. Which is funny to me.

Which is harder for you to write -- music or lyrics? Why?
I write my music and lyrics at the same time. Sometimes I have to fill in words and verses here and there but it is always created to the melody. I think that is often how the stories find their way out. In general, songwriting is a complete mystery to me and can be quite stressful (it's not a coincidence my CD is called Meltdown!) as I spend months feeling like I can't write a good song. Then some of my favorite stuff (like "Cartwheels") just pops out.

How easy is it for you to write music that kids will relate to, but that parents might enjoy, too? Do you think you've improved your ability to do so over the years?
I try not to think too much about my audience when I write. I try to write a melody I would want to hear as an adult and sometimes I will laugh when a lyric comes out or get a emotional if the song is sad. I never know what kids are going to think of the songs. I don't really test market them too much. I'm more sure adults will enjoy the songs when I complete them than kids.

I don't know that I've necessarily gotten better at reaching both audiences. I'm just always trying to push myself to make a better record than the last one. But there are still those out there who love the simplicity of Great Big Sun. When Liam and I are in the studio together, we just try to make a record that we would want to listen to. The one thing I discovered from teaching preschool is you shouldn't have a preconceived notion of what kids will respond to. So I don't try to guess.

How did you get involved in writing the "Why Not Sea Monsters" albums? Were you trying to do something different from your "regular" kids' albums?
Augsburg Fortress Publishers approached me several years ago to write two songs based on bible verses for their Sunday School curriculum. Having a background in philosophy and religious studies made it a fun little side project. I would write the songs and Liam would record and arrange them with me. One song led to another and soon we had about 16 tracks that were all originally commissioned by AFP. So, I wrote six more songs and covered a couple songs by Craig Wright (friend and playwright/television writer) to fill out the two records. My goal on these records was to try to write Bible songs that would not be preachy but would still bring out the strange beauty of these stories.

What's next for you and Meltdown!?
I've been travelling since March promoting the new CD and we have tons of summer dates set up too. We also have some new videos that we are very excited about which should be airing on Noggin soon.